Gear up: From consoles to thumb drives, a buyer's guide to the best gifts for the tech set

Gear up: From consoles to thumb drives, a buyer's guide to the best gifts for the tech set

November 26th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Playstation 4

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

STOCKING STUFFERS

If you're looking to spend $25 or less on the techie in your life, here are a few cheap options to pad out their stocking. n A three-month subscription to Xbox Live Gold or Playstation Plus services ($25 and $18, respectively)

• iOttie HLCRIO102 Universal Car Mount Holder for smart phones ($20)

• Kingston Digital 32GB DataTraveler 101 USB thumb drive ($20).

• An iSmooth smartphone screen protector ($15-$25, depending on device).

With new consumer technology coming down the pike in a seemingly neverending flood, finding the right device for gadget hounds can turn the holidays into a nightmare of confusing acronyms and ominous glowing lights. But it doesn't have to be.

The following selections may not be the best option for everyone, but they represent some of the safest bets when it comes to shopping for techies this season.

[Note: All prices are based on the average widely available cost via online retailers. Special discounts and bundles for some products may be available during Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales.]

$251-$500

• Playstation 4 ($399)

Beating the Xbox One to market by just a week, Sony's fourth-generation Playstation features 500 gigabytes of internal storage, a motion-tracking camera (the Playstation Eye), vastly improved performance and an integrated gameplay sharing feature. The Dualshock 4 controller addresses many complaints fans had with the Playstation 3's controller, and gamers can play their next-generation titles wirelessly by pairing a Playstation Vita ($200) to the console.

• iPad Air (from $499)

The svelte, 1-pound Air is thinner, lighter and twice as fast as its predecessor, the fourth-generation iPad, while still offering the high-resolution Retina display and 10-hour battery life. Many outlets, including CNET and Huffington Post, have dubbed it the best tablet on the market, despite some stiff competition. If the 10-inch screen is too big, consider the new, refreshed iPad Mini (from $400), which offers identical specifications in a slightly smaller package.

• Xbox One ($499)

Almost a decade after the launch of the Xbox 360, Microsoft has released its next-generation console. In addition to the usual upgrades to processing power and graphics capabilities, the One has a 500-gigabyte hard drive, advanced multimedia and content sharing functionality and a much-improved Kinect camera, which tracks player's heart rate and facial expressions as well as movement.

$101-$250

• Acer C720 Chromebook ($200)

Acer C720 Chromebook

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Chromebook laptops offer a cheap alternative to tablets for those whose needs consist of creating documents, updating social media and streaming multimedia online, all of which are bread-and-butter activities for Google's primarily Internet-based Chrome operating system. The C720 has an 11.6-inch screen, 8-1/2 hours of battery life and boots up in seven seconds. At 16 gigabytes, the built-in storage is limited, but Google includes 100 gigabytes of free online storage for two years. Those used to working in another operating - Windows or Mac OS - should anticipate a bit of an adjustment period to Chrome OS.

• Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 ($229/$244 for an ad-free version)

The HDX 7 cuts Apple's cost of entry into tablet ownership nearly in half while still offering premium features, including a high-resolution screen, Dolby-certified audio and a blisteringly fast quad-core processor. The free "Mayday" feature connects to a video feed with an Amazon rep, who can take control of the tablet to help newcomers with problems. Amazon currently has a somewhat limited library of apps, however, so those who want access to the full Google Play store should consider the Google Nexus 7 ($229) instead.

• Seagate Wireless Plus ($181)

Most tablets and smartphones only come with enough storage to hold a couple of hours of high-definition video. On road trips or in the absence of a Wi-Fi connection, some might want a bit more space. Seagate packs one terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of storage into this wireless hard drive, enough to hold more than 30 Blu-ray films or 250,000 mp3s. Up to eight devices can access the content simultaneously via a private network and, because of its rechargeable battery, it doesn't need to occupy the cigarette lighter.

$51-$100

• Ouya ($100)

Ouya

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

The Ouya offers cheap entry into console gaming for those who can't afford an Xbox One or Playstation 4. The result of a massively successful 2012 Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $8 million, this 3-inch, cube-shaped "microconsole" features a library of lower-budget, independently, developed downloadable games, some from smartphones and tablets, as well as a growing crop of exclusive content. These can be played using the included wireless controller and all can be tried out for free via downloadable trials.

• Logitech UE Mobile Boombox ($72)

In the last year, the field of Bluetooth speakers has exploded, and the price range has broadened dramatically, from super-expensive units by Bose and Klipsch to entry-level devices. The UE Mobile brings the sound of a higher-end set in a budget-priced package. It pairs to Bluetooth-equipped devices (most smartphones and tablets) and is both rugged and tiny, offering an extremely portable way to bring up to nine hours of surprisingly big sound to outdoor gatherings when the nearest plug is too far away.

• Roku 3 ($95)

For years, the hockey puck-shaped Roku has offered one of the simplest ways to access media streaming services on non-Internet-connected TVs. This newest version offers a faster processor, better Wi-Fi connectivity and an overhauled, streamlined interface for accessing Roku's more than 100 content channels, including services such HBO Go, Netflix and Hulu Plus. The updated remote doubles as a motion controller for gaming and has a new headphone jack for private listening late at night.

Less than $50

• Google Chromecast ($35)

Google Chromecast

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Introduced this year, the Chromecast is Google's low-cost answer to the Apple TV, Roku and other media-streaming devices. The size of a USB thumb drive, the Chromecast plugs into the TV's HDMI port and is accessed via a browser on a computer or a smart app on a device connected to the same wireless network. Users then "fling" content from the small screen to the big one. Support currently is limited to YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Google Play/Music and Pandora, but the device will self-update as Google expands access to new services.

• Koss PortaPro ($50)

These headphones were introduced in 1984 and have been a cult favorite of audiophiles ever since. Featuring a collapsible headband and an adjustable "Comfort Zone" at the temples, PortaPros are easy on the head, but they're also easy on the ears, with a surprising level of audio clarity and fidelity for the price. The PortaPro comes with Koss' no-questions-asked lifetime warranty.

• IOGEAR Ultra Capacity Mobile Power Station ($50)

In the day and age of rechargeable devices, there are few things more terrifying than a low-battery warning when there's nowhere to plug in and recharge. The IOGEAR lets up to two devices connect via USB charging cables to top up. With a capacity of 11,000 milliamp hours, it has enough juice to charge many smartphones a half dozen times before needing to be plugged in itself.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.